The group that stood on the railway platform of a wayside station in the wee hours of the morning was a curious one. All of them looked dishevelled and untidy. Mr. Veluchamy looked furious, Mr. Selvaraj looked apologetic, Mr. Marimuthu was rubbing his face making sympathetic noises and Suchitra’s face had a resigned look. The platform had, besides them ,two stray dogs and a railway porter who was snoring away on the only bench that was not broken.
“ You should check the station before you pull people out of their berths like this at 4.30 AM” shouted Mr. Veluchamy “ Look this station is not Salem. It is .. it is.. I don’t know what is the name of the station?”
“Valliyoor” supplied Mr. Marimuthu helpfully.
Mr. Selvaraj , the main protagonist of this drama stood there quietly! He had never imagined that his desire to prove his efficiency would land him in a situation like this! The train was supposed to reach Salem at 4.30 AM. His boss, Mr. Veluchamy had been worried that given the early hours that the train was to reach the station and the short time that it was going to halt there, there was every possibility of them missing it. Mr. Selvaraj had volunteered to be the alarm clock that would wake them up when the station arrived. The point was , he had woken them up at the right time but not at the right station. The train was running one hour late. He had seen the first thing that looked like a station at 4.30 AM imagining it to be their destination and raised the alarm shouting “Sir, Madam please wake up our station has arrived”. In their hurry to get out with their luggage no one had bothered to check if indeed it WAS the station that was meant to be their destination. Suchitra who was on the side upper berth had tried to clamour down quickly, in her hurry stamping on the face of Mr. Marimuthu who was on the side lower berth. Mr. Veluchamy had all but made it to the platform with his suitcase but without one of his shoes..!
Now here they were all stranded on a deserted wayside station about one hour from Salem Junction. While Mr. Marimuthu nursed his injured face, Mr. Veluchamy hopped about on one shoe clad foot glaring at his Joint director. “ It is a wonder I manage to run the department with asses like this reporting to me” he thought in disgust!
“Sir, I will call our district office and get a vehicle to pick us up” said Mr. Selvaraj quietly.
After about 2 hours a rickety jeep took them to the government guest house in Salem. It was 8 AM and they were to leave for the village in another hour and a half. Suchitra did not want to take any more chances with time. She was a stickler for punctuality. Mr. Veluchamy sighed.. ! There was obviously no time for him to buy a pair of shoes now. He had to go to the village in his bathroom slippers!
9.30AM saw the four of them getting into an Ambassador car. Suchitra was intrigued to see all three men trying to squeeze into the front seat with the driver leaving the back seat empty for her! “ Please gentlemen, one of you should come and sit at the back. Why are you all trying to squeeze in the front like this?”
“No no Madam… it is okay. You should be comfortable” said Mr. Veluchamy.
“ That is not right Sir. One of you please come to the back” she said firmly sounding like a school teacher. Both the Assistant Director and the Joint Director looked expectantly at Mr. Veluchamy who, by virtue of his seniority was the natural choice to occupy the back seat. He opened the back door and rested his ample posterior gingerly against the door shutting it with a bang!.
“You can sit comfortably. I don’t bite you know” said Suchitra with a laugh.
Mr. Veluchamy cleared his throat nervously. His present behaviour was dictated by the latest piece of information that he had gathered about this consultant from the government grapevine. He had found out that Dr. Suchitra Iype was the sister of Mr. Sanjay Subramanian a senior IAS officer in the Punjab cadre and a batch mate of the Secretary Animal Husbandry Government of Tamil Nadu!!! He could hear those pigs grunting closer and closer now.. And with the two donkeys in the front seat to assist him, it would be a wonder if he even made it as the Director of that breeding station. In all possibility he would be demoted as dung collector there!
“So sir.. when will we reach Viduthalainagar” ? she asked trying to make conversation!
“In about two hours Madam” said the driver. Mr. Veluchamy glared at the upstart! He remembered distinctly asking Marimuthu to brief this fellow to take the longer route which would take about four hours giving Dr. Anbazhagan enough time to transport those goats to the village.
“ Take that Kumara koil route driver. It will take about two hours more but the road is better and the ride will be more comfortable” he told the driver imperiously closing all further discussions on that at least! “Four hours..! My God.. that is really long. I hope we have enough time for discussions there “ Suchitra said in a worried tone taking out from her purse a Black Berry to check for emails. Mr. Veluchamy looked at the phone curiously. He shuddered thinking of the possibility of ever having to use such a phone – as it , it had taken him so long to learn how to use his present cell phone.
The drive went on and he dozed off snoring gently. All the tension of organizing this visit had taken its toll on him. He had had to call up Dr.Anbazhagan of the goat breeding station near Shakaragiri and request him to rent out 100 goat units for a day. The man had been most stubborn quoting astronomical prices . Ungrateful wretch! Did he not remember the huge amount he had made as a result of the so called procurement last June? And it was not to say that his was the only goat breeding station in the district. It was just that his wife was related to Mr. Veluchamy’s sister-in-law’s husband! And his two able assistants had been of no use either! “When it comes to sharing the benefits, everyone wants to be involved. But when it comes to dealing with a crisis like this arising out of that no one really knows what to do” he thought to himself!
The sudden jolting of the car woke up Mr. Veluchamy rudely! “What happened”? he asked the driver. “Sir there is some problem with the car” muttered the driver opening the bonnet and looking inside.
“How far are we from the village?” asked Suchitra impatiently . “About 2 kms Madam.” Said Mr. Selvaraj. “ Look why don’t we walk to the village then” she suggested. Mr. Veluchamy was horrified! Such a thought had never entered his head!
“No Madam, we will send Marimuthu and ask him to bring the goat beneficiaries here. You can rest under that tree there” he said pointing towards towards the left.
“Don’t be silly! We need to go to a village and set the study against the context of this village. It is not like asking them questions about immunization” she said.
So, there they were.. three men and a woman trudging along the road towards the village. They stopped a boy on a bicycle to ask for directions. “ If you wade through the river you will reach faster. It is not very deep you know” he said. The idea seemed to appeal to Suchitra who insisted that they save that precious thirty odd minutes by taking the shortest possible route!
Suchitra took off her slippers holding them in her left hand and rolling up her salwar before stepping into the water. Marimuthu and Selvaraj rolled up their trousers and followed suit. Mr. Veluchamy’s trousers unfortunately refused to go beyond his calves. But he was relieved that he could step into the water with his slippers on. They were made of rubber and therefore not likely to be ruined. Had he worn his shoes, he would have had to hold them in one hand while making sure that his socks did not fall into the water. There was a bright side to every thing…. !
But the bright side to this walk through the river did not last very long. One of Mr. Veluchamy’s slippers got stuck in the mud on the river bed. In an attempt to pull it out, he found that he had snapped the strap leaving him again with only one of a pair functional- this time a slipper instead of a shoe!!
Viduthalainagar was a small sleepy hamlet consisting of about 100 families of the scheduled castes living in small mud houses. The people depended on agriculture wage work for their livelihood and almost none of them owned any land.
This being the lean season most of them were home. Some of them suddenly noticed the four outsiders walking into the village. Unfortunately the dogs of the village also noticed the visitors and suddenly there were a pack of four dogs barking furiously at them. Suchitra seemed unperturbed by the ruckus around. She made her way purposefully toward the centre of the village. Marimuthu on the other hand was very nervous. He did not like dogs – particularly dogs like this in god forsaken villages. He picked up a stone and threw it at one of the dogs. This angered the rest and they started snarling and barring their teeth. Mr. Veluchamy was worried! This was not how he had planned his entry into the village. He felt very vulnerable without the trappings of officialdom around him.
“Where is Murugesan? “ he asked loudly. Murugesan was the ward member from the village and Mr. Veluchamy’s contact.
“Saar I am here” said a middle aged man walking towards the group. “Very good !Are the goats ready for inspection ? “ asked Mr. Veluchamy.
“Inspection? What do you mean?. I am here to speak to the families who have been given goats not to inspect the goats themselves” said Suchitra walking quickly into the village.
She walked into a hut whose sole occupant was an old lady. “Amma where are your goats? “ asked Suchitra. “ I don’t know…!” said the lady. “ Madam, you see, the goats have gone for grazing. They are not all here” said Murugesan helpfully. Suchitra moved on into the intersecting street into another house, then another, then another. – no goats yet!!
“What happened? Dr. Anbhazgan said that he would deliver the goats by 11AM” he whispered urgently to Marimuthu. Marimuthu took out his cell and covertly made a whispered phone call trying to find out the whereabouts of the goats. “They have been despatched sir. Should be here any moment” he whispered back into Mr. Veluchamy’s ears.
Suchitra in the meanwhile was behaving like a CBI inspector. She was speaking to different people and taking notes.
In the midst of all this they could hear the sound of a tractor. The sound increased as the tractor reached the village. All eyes were on the trailer of the tractor which was packed with goats!!!
“What is this? “ asked Suchitra suspiciously “Goats Madam” said Mr. Veluchamy helpfully. “Oh I can see that. But why have they arrived here in the trailer like this?” she asked.
“ Madam you see, the villagers were worried that you may be angry if you had not seen any goats here. So they sent someone with the tractor to collect all the goats from the grazing grounds and bring them here” said Mr. Selvaraj.
Suchitra was now addressing the community members “Which ones of these are your animals? Come on please identify them” she coaxed the villagers.
“Two of those are yours aren’t they? “ asked Murugesan of an old man standing next to him. The man in question nodded dumbly. “You are giving out two goats per person? I thought it was unit wise distribution” she asked Mr. Veluchamy.
Mr. Veluchamy was breathing heavily. The cat was now obviously poised to leap out of the bag. Suchitra turned her attention to the others in the village and started asking more questions. She asked one of the women to take her goats and go home. The woman hesitated looking unsure. She tried to approach a goat but the animal shrank back. “ You see Madam, these goats are originally from Karnataka. They have a lot of problem trying to understand Tamil. That is why it is not coming to this lady’ explained Marimuthu at his creative best.
Suchitra glared at him and then transferred her attention to Mr. Veluchamy “Please tell me the truth sir.. you did not actually distribute any goats here did you? “Madam you are not understanding.. you see” began Mr. Veluchamy.
“ I can see everything sir. And I will make sure that everything is seen clearly through my report” said Suchitra scribbling furiously into her notebook.
Mr. Veluchamy felt sick at the pit of his stomach. That pig breeding station was fast becoming a reality!!!
( Will be concluded in part 3)